Sexual education, whether it takes an abstinence-only approach or informs youth how to have sex safely, ultimately has little influence over if students become sexually active; over time, regardless of the nature of their sex ed programs, adolescents still wind up having sex. However, that doesn’t mean that sexual education isn’t influential. In fact, a new study has found that the type of sex ed program has a significant influence on whether or not teens are having safe sex.
Published in the Journal of Adolescence, the new study reveals that abstinence-only sex education programs do not stop minors from having sex. Students whose sex ed programs teach abstinence as the only way to protect sexual health are more likely to have unprotected sex than students who learn safe sexual practices.
The authors of the study cited evidence that sex ed programming influences either a positive or negative attitude toward condoms. In their research, they found that students enrolled in schools that have an abstinence-only curriculum in place have less favorable attitudes toward condoms, which is the reason that they may be less likely to use condoms once they become sexually active.
In contrast, students who receive a comprehensive sexual education — or even no sex ed at all — maintained a significantly more positive attitude toward condom-use as a way to have sex safely.
The investigators surveyed the behaviors of 450 African American youth aged 12 to 14 attending middle school in the southern United States.
African American students are especially vulnerable to sex ed that fails to guide them toward making safe choices in their sex lives. According to research cited by the authors, African American middle school students are more sexually active at an earlier age and with more partners than middle school students in other demographics.
Without access to sex ed that promotes condom use, these teens are set to experience the health consequences of unprotected sex disproportionately. The national rate of condom use among all teens is bleak, with a 2015 survey reporting that 43% of teens did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse.
The Need for Broader Sexual Education
School-based sex ed programs are an integral part of a broader sexual education that teens should receive from their families, communities, and even through media. While parents may dread having “the talk” with their child, it’s essential for families to establish an open dialogue about safe sex — and sooner rather than later.
The reality is that almost half of the youth between the ages of 10 and 17 have encountered pornography within the last year, highlighting the need for teens to receive a formal or informal sexual education from a trusted source rather than predominately from media that may showcase risky sexual practices.
One study published earlier this year found that the initiation of sexual behavior among adolescents occurred about a year after their first exposure to pornography. On average, youth were first exposed to porn at the age of 12, indicating that they would become sexually active by the age of 13 or 14.
Sex ed that effectively promotes safe sex is especially critical for young adults, who have a comparatively high incidence of sexually transmitted disease; according to the CDC, youth between the ages of 15 and 24 account for approximately half of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections in the U.S.
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